Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Apologetic Tuesday: Objective Purpose and Meaning in the World

I was watching a TV show a few weeks ago on a regular broadcast network. In the show’s episode, one of the story arcs is that a character discovers he no longer has to worry about things being broken or dangers out there. He no longer has to worry about this because he has discovered Buddhism, and its attendant philosophies. He says (paraphrased), “I don’t have to worry about this cup, because to me, it’s already broken.” The idea is that since everything is already subject to entropy (in its final form of nothingness), you might as well regard any particular object, thing, or person as being in that state, so that you do not despair that final state.

There’s something seriously wrong with that philosophy: it’s irrational. In a way (and to a certain extent), it embraces the ideas of Nietzsche—that there is no ultimate state, that things ultimately just die (there are, of course, notable and major differences). But while Nietzsche (or other existentialists) conclude that the only real question is whether or not to kill yourself when facing this bleak reality, this philosophy says just create your own meaning and treat it as though it were objective. More precisely, it is this idea: there is no ultimate redemption and everything dies, but treat this as though it is a good thing. It’s absolutely baffling. This pretending does nothing but show us we can be immediately happy, even in long-term frustration and death.

This immediate happiness is illusory, however. While we may be happy for a time, we cannot ever really shake the feeling and knowledge that what we have will amount to ruin. Even the accolades some of us may receive after death will only last so long, and only mean so much to so many people. At the end, at bottom, without God, we know there is no ultimate meaning. Like those who engage in risky behaviors shouting, “YOLO!,” so too the Buddhist will want to shrug off this truth and say, “But we should enjoy life anyway.” Why? There is no Purpose to enjoy; there are only purposes we pursue to fulfill our fleeting desires. And when those desires are met—then what? Then we die: a vaporous steam of existence against the vast cosmic expanse of space and time. And it matters not if you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy your time.

Yet at the same time, we recognize that the above paragraph cannot be lived out. It is fundamentally absurd. We recognize that there is such a thing as Purpose. It is one part of the reason we pursue our own individual purposes: our individual powers to purpose and will and to do were given to us to help fulfill objective Purpose. There is something strangely innate to human behavior and psychology concerning Purpose, and how our purposes, when used rightly, contribute to Purpose. That Purpose is best fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

If that is so, then it follows that there is Purpose, and an objective reality in which all of the purposes of the world are to be grounded. That objective reality is God. He is a person (tri-personal in fact), and he is a being. He is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; he is the great three-in-one. He revealed his image in the person of Jesus Christ, who was sent down to this earth to live a sinless life, pay for sins by dying on the cross, and was raised to life again. His Purpose was the story of redemption. Those who take part in this story are the only ones who take a positive role in using their purposes to fulfill objective Purpose. What will you do with this? It’s not enough to intellectually believe these facts about the Gospel message. Nor is it enough to add the will to be saved from your sins to eternal life. To these, you must add the trust in God for this salvation. What will you do with Jesus?


  1. I wonder how you would react if I wrote something like the following: "Christianity is a horrible religion. Christians hold that when one person dies for someone else, it's a great thing. They claim that everyone should hasten to die as soon as possible, preferably on a cross. Buddhism, by contrast, is a far more compassionate religion and clearly the only way to go." Well you might respond by saying: "That religion you describe certainly does sound pretty bad. But it's not at all Christianity. Why don't you read a little bit about Christianity before saying false things about it?" And if I responded by saying that I saw a TV show that depicted Christianity this way, would you view that as an adequate reply?

    Anyhow, reversing the roles, this is pretty much what I think about your post. It doesn't even attempt to describe the actual view of Buddhism. What's the point? Do you imagine that your own religious beliefs are made more solid if they are based on a completely false view of competing systems?

    1. Thank you for commenting, but you should probably read the comment guidelines. In general, I do not allow anonymous comments. Now to the point!

      First, there is no monolithic Buddhism (though there may be demarcations outlining a fundamental or basic Buddhist system, that's fine by me). Second, your complaint can be leveled entirely against the television show's depiction. If you'll notice, I direct all criticism toward that view, which was presented as a form of Buddhist philosophy. It just doesn't matter to me what philosophy it purports to be. It could be the fictional philosophy of The Order of the Mad Hatter--that's not the point. The point is the ensuing critique. Which, as one will notice, stands untouched.

  2. All right, in accordance with your requirements, I am attempting to comment non-anonymously. I must point out that it is not clear throughout that your criticism is directed only at the show's depiction of Buddhism. For example: "Like those who engage in risky behaviors shouting, “YOLO!,” so too the Buddhist will want to shrug off this truth and say, “But we should enjoy life anyway.” " Note you speak here of "the Buddhist," not "the Buddhist as depicted by this show." It does seem natural to conclude that you take this as a representative portrait of the religion.

    And, again, I point out that it is a bad caricature. Yes there are many different schools of Buddhism, but none of them asserts that life is purpose-less, that we should just seek to enjoy ourselves. Not one. Instead, the overall goal of all schools of Buddhism is (eternal) enlightenment, a goal that is arguably not completely dissimilar to the aim of salvation (though we certainly not equate the two). For a practicing Buddhist there is most certainly a purpose to life. Instead, what you are actually criticizing here is the view of nihilism. In fact, Buddhist philosophy also explicitly criticizes this view as one of the extremes to be avoided.

    My basic point is to urge you to be fair in your discussion, not simply with regard to Buddhism, but also with all the belief systems you are criticizing. This stance could be justified on religious ground (part of Buddhist ethics, e.g., specifically prohibits disparaging other religions, although one can of course make legitimate criticisms). But this can also be justified in terms of philosophy--a pursuit you say you are interested in. One of the most valuable things about the discipline--and I say this as someone who has spent his entire adult life studying philosophy--is its dispassionate concern with the truth. Argue, criticize, demolish someone's position--but don't blatantly misrepresent the views of others. This is what is truly pointless.

    1. Matthew, thank you for complying with the comment guidelines. First, a word about your post (or a few, really): you tend to ascribe the worst (unnecessarily) when terms such as these are used: "urge you to be fair," "disparaging other religions," "philosophy-a pursuit you say you are interested in," "dispassionate concern with the truth," and "blatantly misrepresent the views of others." All of these are what is known as "weasel words," or commonly, words or phrases that are intended to paint a specific picture. Even if it follows that I am attempting a critique at Buddhism proper and independently of any context (which is clearly not the case, but that is for later), and even if it should be shown such a critique is wholly bankrupt, it does not follow that I am: a) being unfair, b) disparaging another religion, c) not truly interested in philosophy, d) not objective, e) blatantly misrepresenting the views of others. Ironically, in implying these things (as normal language will be taken), you may be guilty of nearly all of these.

      I agree that if your relevant quote were all that we had, it does seem that we're only disputing some fundamental or main core of Buddhism. But that's not all we have--we have the entire first paragraph. I don't know why I should have to repeat the context in every single paragraph in which the relevant philosophy is discussed within the same piece in order to expect, reasonably, it to be understood. Finally, the purpose-less is a discussed and proposed entailment of nihilism, which is a discussed and proposed entailment of the show's philosophy of things ultimately breaking down and ceasing to exist.

    2. Small point, but "weasel word" actually means an intentionally ambiguous term, not one that paints a specific picture. Slightly larger point: what on earth is wrong with stating that philosophy is a pursuit you say you are interested in?? That is simply a report of what you state about your interests on your website (don't you say you're interested in philosophy?). Very odd to take objection to that. Similarly, what on earth is wrong, negative, aggressive, or what have you in describing philosophy as a dispassionate pursuit of truth? This is almost a truistic thing to say.

      Now, certainly some of the language you quote is more charged--"urge you to be fair," etc., since this concerns the substance of my criticism. All I can ask is that you ask yourself how you would respond if you read something analogous about Christianity (i.e. something that presented the religion in an obviously wrong, negative light). Would you regard it as completely benign and unproblematic, a mere thought experiment about a possible use of the word "Christianity"?

      Even more to the point, you go on to suggest that even if you had been attempting an objective critique of Buddhism, and it was clearly and obviously wrong, still it is not unfair to the view in question, nor a disparagement, nor a blatant misrepresentation. Really? (In the last case, at least, we are essentially using synonyms.) Here I am almost at a loss for words. I suppose I naively assumed that you agreed that if you are writing about the views of others, especially their religious views, it is important to try to get those views at least somewhat right, especially when they are negative and unflattering. You don't accept this??

      The only semi-plausible alternative I can imagine is that you are imagining a scenario where you are making a simple mistake, an honest error, in your characterization. And here I would agree that a mistake per se is not necessarily morally culpable. But in the (counterfactual) case at hand, we are talking about a mistake that involves attributing a highly negative viewpoint (nothing matters, just enjoy yourself) and, moreover, is easily correctable--5 minutes searching on the internet would reveal that Buddhists do not hold that life is purposeless, etc. And here I would have imagined it obvious that if one were offering an objective critique for public consumption--and we are, of course, still speaking counter-factually--this failure to do any sort of due diligence would certainly warrant the critical language I used. But, look, I am speaking from the perspective of an academic; I am used to operating in an arena where all of this is ordinarily taken for granted. Maybe the expectations for a blog are very different.

    3. "Weasel words" are not merely ambiguities, but also meant to convey something specific, and that is the point. I also explained what each of the five points meant; if you do not understand them, that is fine. My view neither entails, nor describes, what you ascribe to it, and couple it with the fact that I am telling you what I said, and the fact that you refuse to accept it is grounds for me thinking you to be a non-serious thinker.

      To your point of the "five minutes show," I only reiterate that we're talking about the show, as stated. While you claim it would take me only "five minutes," it would take you only five sentences (rhetorical; it's actually a couple more, but it shouldn't take you five minutes to read it). Given your sub-standard analysis, I highly doubt you are an academic of the relevant kind (philosophical). If you persist in this, I will have to delete your comments. Have a good day! :)


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